Setting the Record Straight on DWOL Defenses

State v. Castillon (HSC May 16, 2019)
Background. Michelle Castillon was cited and charged for driving without a license. HRS § 286-102. At trial, the prosecution called the citing officer who testified that he stopped Castillon because her vehicle had expired safety and registration tags. The officer asked Castillon if she had a driver’s license. She could not. The officer testified at trial that he called into dispatch to see if she had a license. Dispatch reported back that her license had been revoked. The prosecution also called a County official who testified that her database did not include licenses in Canada. There was no testimony about Mexico.

Castillon presented no evidence that she possessed a valid license issued from Canada or Mexico. She argued that the prosecution had the burden of proving that not only did she lack a license in Hawaii, but she did not have a license in Canada or Mexico. The district court (Hon. Judge Margaret Masunaga) rejected this argument and convicted Castillon.

Castillon appealed to the ICA. The ICA affirmed. You can read that opinion HERE. The HSC took certiorari for further review.

How to read the DWOL Statute. “A person operating . . . motor vehicles shall be examined as provided in section 286-108 and duly licensed by the examiner of drivers[.]” HRS § 286-102(b). This provision is exempt, however, for a person in possession of the “equivalent to a driver’s license issued in this State but was issued to the person in another state of the United States” and “Mexico, or a province of the Dominion of Canada[.]” HRS § 286-105(3) and (4).

The ICA held that the defendant bore the initial burden to show an exemption before it shifts to the prosecution to disprove beyond a reasonable doubt. The ICA reasoned that exemptions are always a defense and are not elements to the offense when “

Clarifying the ICA’s Opinion. The HSC agreed with the ICA’s analysis in all respects but one. The HSC took issue with the ICA’s reliance on State v. Nobriga, 10 Haw. App. 353, 873 P.2d 110 (1994). The ICA noted that exemptions are always defenses and are never elements to the offense “when the facts or evidence concerning [the exemption] are peculiarly within the knowledge of the defendant or within the defendant’s private control.”

The HSC noted that this should not be a hard and fast rule. A defense is “a fact or set of facts which negatives penal liability[.]” HRS § 701-115(a). It does not matter if the facts are something the defendant should know about or control. So long as there is “some evidence . . . no matter how weak, inconclusive, or unsatisfactory the evidence may be,” the defendant has met his or her initial burden. State v. Pinero, 75 Haw. 282, 304, 859 P.2d 1369, 1379 (1993).

Here, the HSC agreed that Castillon did not meet this burden—but it wasn’t because these facts were known to her or within her private control.

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